By Laura Latzko, Aug. 27, 2014.
Each year, as sure as the changing seasons, the National Gay Flag Football League hosts Gay Bowl, its annual flag football championship tournament.
Equally predictable is the dedication and preparation the Phoenix Hellraisers put forth as the head out to represent Arizona in one of the sports most highly regarded events.
This year, Gay Bowl XIV is expected to draw as many as 40 teams and up to 650 players, from cities across the United States and Canada, to Philadelphia Oct. 9-12.
Thirty-two players, representing the Phoenix Hellraisers Maroon and Gold teams, have already been practicing twice a week since July.
According to Jared Garduno, commissioner for both the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League and the National Gay Flag Football League, summer conditioning allows the two teams to work on strategies for game play during the national tournament.
“In order to compete at the highest level, you can’t slack off in your conditioning,” he said. “Going to the gym is different than going to the field and working in a football conditioning environment.”
While the players consider themselves one unit at tournaments, they hold individual practices and scrimmage against each other during joint practices. And, to determine which team each player was placed on, Garduno said players underwent a tryout process that included passing, defensive and conditioning drills.
“It is not to compete to beat each other but to make each other better,” Garduno said. “We want to show that even though we are two different teams, we are a family. We are showing our Phoenix pride.”
A Hell of a History
The Gay Bowl began in 2002 with three teams — Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco — and the tournament has grown to 32 men’s and 10 women’s teams competing each year. A team has represented Phoenix at every Gay Bowl since 2005.
Last year, following Gay Bowl XIII in Scottsdale, both Hellraisers teams finished in the A bracket. Which, Garduno added, means they’ll be starting out in a more competitive bracket this year.
“It is more intense and more competitive,” he said. “We are looking to move up in the ranks and try to bring home another title.”
Garduno said Phoenix is one of only three cities with two teams in the A division, and the Hellraisers are plan to further their reputation for strong play as they face the best teams in the country.
Joel Horton, a player in the Phoenix league since last year, said he’s already taken note of the Hellraisers reputation and seen players push the limits to become better players.
“There’s definitely pressure because people do have high expectations because of how the Hellraisers have done in the past,” Horton said. “We want to live up to it.”
Steven Griswold, a Hellraisers member who has been playing flag football for nine years, said during the Gay Bowl, he and other players want to represent their leagues and cities positively.
“You really become competitive, trying to do your best and bring something home to your city and your sponsors,” Griswold said. “You try to make them proud.”
Griswold, who played football in high school, said Gay Bowl allows players to compete against, and connect with, other skilled gay football players and learn how to strengthen the Phoenix league.
While winning is the ultimate goal, both players agree the camaraderie of tournament experience is invaluable.
“To be part of a community of guys who all had the same interest and passion for what we loved to do and be able to be open about ourselves … was the most amazing part of it,” Griswold said of his first Gay Bowl. “I felt I could be myself and comfortable with who I was around my peers.”
As a seasoned player who has participated in the Gay Bowl with Phoenix and San Diego teams, Griswold plans to take on a mentoring role with rookies at the national tournament as well as in the upcoming season.
New player clinic at Colter Park
10 a.m. Saturdays in November
525 W. Colter St., Phoenix.